The Lean Startup Conference 2018 – Las Vegas

We came to the startup movement through Steve Blank: he really has it canned, this how to build a business from nothing. It is almost like it is too easy, except he does tell you, whatever else you do, starting a business to scale will probably be the hardest endeavour you can ever do, and by the way, coming from a dysfunctional family helps if you are going to be a founder. In fact in a panel discussion at the 2018 Lean Startup Conference in Las Vegas, Eric Ries the author of the bestseller The Lean Startup expressed his wish that if he could do it all over again, he would have not made it sound too easy, which has become an entry point of criticism for the book in recent years, especially now that corporate America is trying to implement and learn from Ries and his team.

Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup book and company we can say are the crystallization of Steve Blank’s initial ideas as taught in his classroom and initial blog essays, combining it with the engineering methods and management systems of Toyota, thus transforming the concepts and anecdotes to a combination of Steve Blank and Toyota into a digestible language that has graduated into the world to consultants and annual conferences.

First off, in spite of the criticism the Lean Startup concepts and simplifications have received in recent years, our company is a testament that the ideas of Steve Blank, and the iterations of his ideas in the works of people like Eric Ries do work. We of course are no brand name in the startup movements that have sprouted all over the world in the last decade, especially those that have emerged from Silicon Valley. But we have grown from our beginnings of just starting as a scrappy two-people team, to a health care trading company contributing to health care solutions in the Philippines. Nearing our one-decade birthday anniversary in the market, to pull back and understand startups, to be reminded of our roots, to also take a break for the intensity of work for eight years: we decided to join the Lean Startup Conference in Las Vegas.

Largely, the venue of having it on the Zappos Campus is very interesting, because startup movements are always seen to be innovations in technology, and Zappos is a testament that innovations can come from business models, service orientation, to management styles. Zappos is the largest company to practice holocracy, which we find to be too utopian but nevertheless seems to be working for this Amazon subsidiary.

The conference did not disappoint: the plenary sessions were mostly of very high quality, and the breakout sessions we thought were revealing of the limits of the Lean Startup concepts when extended to philanthropy or big business. GE previously was touted to be the company that was using the Lean Startup methodologies, and the difference of just two years in the covers of Bloomberg below should be enough to summarize what had happened in 24 months since celebrating the transformation of GE to some kind of a Lean-agile-digital company.

March 21, 2016 Bloomberg cover versus February 18, 2018 cover

The big incentive for us to travel was also Reid Hoffman being part of the culminating plenary session, and he had approached business ideas previously with his background in philosophy, and his success in business and philanthropy made him a much sought-after speaker.

So with what Steve Blank’s ideas have contributed to our start and growth (we got to meet him and even had him autograph a book in 2016), thus the interest in Lean as a concept, Reid Hoffman attending to join a discussion on blitz scaling, and going to Las Vegas to visit Zappos: we were on our way.

Reid Hoffman is too big, and too present in youtube, to be interesting because what he said in the conference is basically out there already. And since he is a certified billionaire, he is likely very calculated in public discussions. This was all confirmed in seeing and listening to Hoffman on the last day of the conference. But in conferences like this, it is not the big name one is likely familiar with that makes attendance worth the effort. The discovery of new names not in our radar is really what makes these conferences worth the trip.

What we said about Reid Hoffman we can say the same about Tony Hsieh, what he had to say had been said by him many times, and easily can be found on the web, in articles and videos.

Hands down, Holly Liu was the best speaker for us, plus an education on the world of online games. She was articulate, staggering in achievement, and generous with her ideas. In fact, listening to her explained to us the weak breakout sessions or even one of the weaker plenary sessions. She basically says that there are abilities and ingredients to innovate and disrupt that are unique to startups. Some of the reasons are: nobody cares about your startup, nobody knows or likes your startup. This frees you up to be sharp, to be adventurous, and to dare to be different and exciting to rise above the rest. She did not exactly say large companies are hopeless in the areas of innovation and disruption, but that somehow the outlook will be different, or the ingredients just cannot be duplicated, and by implication, likely will need a whole different set of ingredients. In breakout sessions of the people in government who are currently tasked to bring in the spirit of the Lean Startup movement into these mammoth organizations, one does hear some of the speakers say they were hired because they did a startup and failed, so one qualification was they have tried out the startup world. There is much that has been said of being unafraid to fail in Silicon Valley, but the ability and the experience of those who have succeeded, like Holly Liu, are the reasons the gravitas to talk about innovation and persistence amidst the sea of failures is so convincing and more importantly, realistic.

Holly Liu in the conference

The other great speakers were Matt Johnson of the Frontier Project and Stephen Robert Morse of Observatory, on the importance of a compelling story, even biological and psychological reactions to it were discussed, with a powerful preview of a possible Netflix project by Morse on Colin Kaepernick. Liz Jackson of The Disabled List (she was even more compelling here than in New York last year with her 99U talk on design as she argued not for design this time, but for how business is doing it all wrong in approaching this segment of the market). Joel Spolsky of Stack Overflow did not only have a great story of making it in the world of online business, but more importantly he talked about countering a web business that monetizes what should be an online space that allows programmers to have a free and open discussion to help each other. In short, not everything should be monetized in the web, even if it is possible to monetize it: and Silicon Valley is under the microscope these days precisely because of this issue (Facebook is monetizing you).

The discussion titled Lean Startup Where You Least Expect It was well moderated by Hisham Ibrahim, and the founders Malcolm Handley of Strong Atomics, Jaya Rao of Molekule, Greg Piefer of Shine, and Claudia Recchi of EdSights were all articulate, and have been going through the hoops of running a startup. These are founders who are beginning or have attracted funding, but are still grappling with issues of how to scale. You could see and hear their passion and struggle to get not only proof of concept, but beyond, the struggle to scale in the area of nuclear fusion to software to help universities track students at risk of dropping out. This is in contrast to the Real-World Lessons in Scaling Innovation Inside Large Enterprises with Keith Berry of Moody Analytics, John Buhl of Liguori Innovation, Julie Foy of Proctor and Gamble, Jean Vernor of Munich Reinsurance America, and Lisha Davis of Vanguard. The most memorable anecdote here was how Procter and Gamble innovated with what is a leading sub-category product in the diaper category: the environmentally friendly disposable diaper, which is certainly important, but also maybe says a lot about the limits of what is possible in giants like Procter and Gamble, which certainly is known globally to aggressively recruit some of the best talent available out there, but is also being questioned in media outlets for how competition from smaller companies may be beating it in the area of innovation and in delighting customers.

Forms were given to those who wanted some time with Eric Ries, founder of the Lean Startup Conference. It was told to us that those who will get some time with him will be announced, but no announcement ever came, so some of us wondered if this did push through. Our question written in the form was: How do we bring this to the Philippines? It was a shot at having the Lean Startup team really connected to Philippine giant companies (with paid fees of course, and we would have helped in the legwork to get them connected), and to the small but real startup scene in the Philippines. Telecom conglomerate PLDT for example had Guy Kawasaki previously, and we think other conglomerates are also trying to understand the startup DNA. Metro Pacific and Ayala Corporation both have startup funding ventures looking for the next Alibaba. It will not be as exciting as say trying out the methodology and the Lean Startup team in say Procter and Gamble, or even GE for that matter: but with the efforts in non-profit, I think to launch this in a Third World country, in Asia, will add to the coffers and glamour and usefulness of the Lean Startup ideas, extend concepts, ignite new movements. But the Lean Startup team will need to be willing to see this market as worthy of its time (China and its cities like Shenzhen should be disqualified from the Third World category), as it tries to extend its influence way beyond the Startup world of say San Francisco, New York, and Berlin. The future of this movement and the Lean Startup team of Eric Ries can be found outside the centers of startups and innovation.

A full disclosure: we got to attend simply out of the kindness of the Lean Startup Conference rules, that allow participants who find the fees too prohibitive to go at a much reduced rate in exchange for a blog review of the conference. The conference is worth the trip and the time for anyone who wants to know how people are using, innovating, extending the Lean Startup concepts. Eric Ries did proudly say at the beginning that this conference had none of the PR-machine-polished talks, and except for two of the biggest names that had the feel of a PR polisher having done work already long ago, Ries was largely correct, and this made the weaker parts of the breakout conferences all the more obvious, but at the same time it was what made the strong plenary sessions so fresh and compelling.